Public Reading of the Books of Homilies

The eleventh of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion says,

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

From this reference it is clear that, for the fuller teaching of the doctrine of justification, the Articles rely upon an outside text: the Homily of Justification, printed in the first of two Books of Homilies. For the people to receive this teaching, it seems, though not strictly necessary, yet still expedient, that this Homily be made widely available in whatever form it may. To this end, I think it worthwhile to consider not only the printing but also the public reading of the Homilies, that those who would be educated may learn the doctrine that their own church teaches.

If Anglican worshippers had sabbatarian habits, selections from the Books of Homilies might be read in churches after Evening Prayer on some Sundays and Fridays, and congregations could still get home in time for dinner. Being read after Evening Prayer, the Homilies would not have to be treated as normal sermons – nor would they have to be read in services that visitors would attend – but they could still edify those who chose to come and listen. (Practically, of course, in parishes with lots of children, someone would need to attend to them while these Homilies were being read for the adults.)

My guess is that the First Book could be read on Sundays and Fridays in Shrovetide and Lent, and most of the Second Book could be more topically applied, mostly in the weeks after Trinity – except, of course, the Homilies of the Nativity of Christ, of the Passion of Christ, of the Resurrection of Christ, of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, and for the Rogation-days, which all have their obvious places in the church year.

A temptation for some, of course, would be to occupy every Sunday in the year with readings from the Homilies, as if the entire population were composed of bookworms who could not get enough of Tudor-era English. A sufficiently restrained use of the Homilies, however, would allow time for normal people to use the rest of their sabbaths in godly leisure, in music, dancing and quiet study, and yet be instructed more thoroughly in the doctrine and practice of the faith. Such opportunity would aid both the spiritual growth of individual believers and the strength of a classical Protestant conviction in the Anglican churches.

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